NFL 2020 Season Preview

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Zach Schiller, Sports Editor

After months of uncertainty, changing plans and downright confusion, the start of the 2020 NFL Season is finally upon us. With a delayed training camp and lack of pre-season games, it’s understandable if the opening game of this season between the defending World Champion Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans this Thursday, Sept. 10 seemed to sneak up on all of us. Despite the irregular nature of this past offseason, plenty of major developments still took place and it is worth revisiting some of them and analyzing how they will play out in what should be one of the most atypical, interesting seasons in league history.

Continuity is King

 With a limited in-person offseason due to COVID-19, continuity more than any other factor could be what decides this season’s Super Bowl champion. In previous seasons, new coaches and players would have several months in person to practice newly installed schemes, develop a culture and improve  crucial  team chemistry. However, teams this past season were not able to practice in person until August. In a typical offseason, teams will begin practicing as an entire roster together in May. Although most teams had virtual offseason programs in lieu of their regularly scheduled programming, listening to an offensive coordinator explain his new offense over Zoom is no substitute for months of in-person practice. That being said, the teams I expect to benefit the most from the 2020 seaon’s truncated offseason are the Chiefs, the Baltimore Ravens, the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints. All four of these organizations are returning with their well-established head coaches, coordinators, general managers and quarterbacks, with the rest of their rosters looking very similar to last year. The great familiarity these teams have within their respective organizations will give them a leg up over other teams who do not have that same level of familiarity with their players, coaches and front office. A perfect example of this is superstar wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins joining the Arizona Cardinals in a trade this past offseason. While Hopkins will undoubtedly still be one of the best wide receivers in football this season, there is something to be said for the chemistry a quarterback builds with his wide receiver. Even if Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray makes a jump in his second NFL season, there is something to be said for the mind meld that Hopkins developed with his former quarterback Deshaun Watson over their three seasons together with the Texans. In a normal offseason, Murray and Hopkins would have been able to work out together both during official team sanctioned activities and individually. However, due to the effects of COVID-19, the league discouraged private workouts between players, and teammates could not practice together until training camp started in August. This is just one of many examples of different players and coaches who will need more time to adjust to each other as the season progresses.

 Tampa Bay

 An exception to the rule of continuity could be Tom Brady and the suddenly relevant Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Do not let the Bucs 7-9 record from last year fool you. This is a talented roster with arguably the best wide receiver corps in the game with pro bowlers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, plus a defense that ranked number six in the league last season according to Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA). Throw in a deep tight end group headlined by Brady’s former Patriot teammate Rob Gronkowski and a myriad of running backs including Ronald Jones II, LeSean McCoy and the recently signed Leonard Fournette and you have arguably one of the most talented rosters on paper in the league who could potentially push the Saints for the NFC South crown. With respect to Brady, clearly he is not at the peak of his powers. However, he has a much-improved supporting offensive cast compared to the defense focused Patriots last season, and I trust Brady to make smart plays and not lead the league in interceptions like his predecessor Jameis Winston (Winston had 30 interceptions to Brady’s eight). The Buccaneers also return all three of their major coaching positions in veteran Head Coach Bruce Arians, Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles and Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich, and I trust those three to translate the team’s talent into wins.

 Will Belichick Finally be Dethroned in the AFC East?

Speaking of Brady, will this season be the first since 2008 that his former team, the New England Patriots, do not capture the AFC East division crown? Betting against a Bill Belichick team might seem irrational at first glance, but crazier things have already happened this year. The Patriots were the most affected team by the NFL’s opt-out rule for this season as they lost a league-high eight players who opted out of the season. Among the opt outs are key veterans like linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung and offensive tackle Marcus Cannon. While the addition of quarterback Cam Newton certainly gives the Patriots hope, they already lost several key defensive contributors this offseason in free agency, including four of their starters from last season’s team, and their offensive skill position players rank towards the bottom of the league. Despite all of these setbacks, the real reason the Patriots could be in jeopardy this season is due to the emergence of the rebuilt Buffalo Bills. Head Coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane have done an outstanding job over the last three years building the previously much-maligned Bills into a playoff contender with a real shot to win the division this year. The team boasts one of the elite defenses in the league with an interesting mix of skill position players including the recently acquired wide receiver Stefon Diggs. The key to the team’s chances this season rests on third-year quarterback Josh Allen. Although the young Bill’s signal caller is far from a polished product, he improved as a passer in his second season and his mobility and athleticism are weapons that a defense needs to account for. If Allen makes another jump in year three, the Bills have the ability to win the division and make some noise in the playoffs.

Wide Open NFC North

Believe it or not, the NFC North looks open for the taking. Most people’s knee-jerk reaction would be to pick the Green Bay Packers, considering the team is coming off of an impressive 13-3 season and a trip to the conference championship game. However, the Packers went 8-1 in one score games and that is a stat that normally regresses to the mean, meaning the Packers are mostly likely not going to achieve last year’s heights. The team also made some interesting moves at the top of this past season’s draft, opting to look long term and take project quarterback Jordan Love in the first round, forgoing desperately needed help at the wide receiver position. The Packers proceeded to take bruising running back A.J. Dillon and tight end/fullback Josiah Deguara with their next two picks and did not draft one of the 37 receivers selected in this past year’s draft; in short, this team seems like they’re trying to morph into the Midwest’s version of the 49ers while they still have a hall-of-fame quarterback on their roster with little weapons. Minnesota would maybe appear the next logical choice, but they are no sure thing either. The Vikings feared defense is sneakily aging, although the addition of defensive end Yannick Ngakoue will certainly bolsters Minnesota’s front seven. On the offensive side of the ball, quarterback Kirk Cousins is slightly above average, at best, and the team just traded away the aforementioned receiver Stefon Diggs. It will be tough for rookie Justin Jefferson to replace Diggs’ production early in his career, especially with a limited offseason. Overall, I would say the Packers and the Vikings are slight favorites given their recent pedigree, but do not count out the Bears and Lions. The Bears have one of the most talented defenses in the NFL, headlined by perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate Khalil Mack, and if Mitch Trubisky/Nick Foles can give this team average quarterback play (which is really asking for a lot) the Bears could be a contender for the division. Finally, there is the Detroit Lions. I know Matt Patricia is the odds-on favorite to be the first coach fired this year but hear me out: through the first nine weeks of last season, quarterback Matthew Stafford was on fire, throwing for 19 touchdowns and only five interceptions. However, Stafford’s back injury cost him the rest of the season and the lions failed to win another game without their starting signal caller. With a healthy Stafford and the additions of running backs Adrian Peterson and D’Andre Swift to their offense, the Lions could surprise people this season, provided they get some help on defense.   

Post-Hype Browns

 I know, last year everyone hyped up the Browns and they went on to have a disappointing 6-10 record. But this season is different. For one, Freddie Kitchens is out and in comes former Vikings Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski as head coach. Stefanski is widely respected and his offense, featuring multiple tight ends and a run heavy attack complemented by play action passing, suits the Browns offensive personnel well and should help quarterback Baker Mayfield bounce back from his sophomore slump. Despite their respective injuries last year, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are still one of the best receiver tandems in the league and the team boasts two of the best young running backs in the league with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Additionally, high-priced addition Austin Hooper should provide Stefanski with his second tight end to pair with the athletic but oft-injured David Njoku. However, everyone knows it was offensive line play, not a lack of playmakers, that doomed the Browns last season. Because of that, the team fortified both their tackle positions, signing right tackle Jack Conklin to a four-year-deal in free agency and drafting their left tackle of the future in Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr. with the tenth pick in last year’s draft. With greater protection, a talented group of skill players and a scheme that more fits his strengths, the pressure will be on Mayfield to see if he can live up to the hype that saw him doing Progressive commercials after his rookie season. On the defensive side of the ball, pass rusher Myles Garrett is a contender for defensive player of the year and an improved Browns defense should leave this team squarely in contention for at least one of the AFC’s three wild card spots.

 

 

Watch out for the Steelers

 

Coming off the heels of one of the more impressive 8-8 seasons in recent memory, the Steelers should expect much better results in 2020. The strength of this Steelers team is their defense, which boasts three all-pro players in defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, defensive end TJ Watt and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, along with other emerging players like second-year linebacker Devin Bush. However, what doomed this team last year was their offense, which ranked near the bottom or dead last in the league in almost every major offensive statistic. And even if the Steelers do not achieve the offensive heights that they reached a couple of years ago with Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown leading the way, the team has plenty of room for improvement. Even though quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in the final stretch of his career and coming off an elbow injury, he will certainly be an improvement over last year’s putrid combination of Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges. Additionally, Roethlisberger should get some help from his top wide receiver and running back, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner, who both were plagued by injuries last season. Throw in a couple of young, talented wideouts in Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and James Washington to go along with tight ends Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald and the Steelers could very reasonably boast at least a league average offense, which should be more than good enough paired with their defense to place them squarely in playoff contention. While winning the division against the rival Baltimore Ravens might be too tall of a task, this Steeler team could make life difficult for teams come playoff time.

 Can Mike McCarthy Make the Cowboys True Contenders?

 Do not let Jason Garrett’s 2016 Coach of the Year Award fool you; he was not a good head coach. For years, pundits had said that Garrett’s mismanagement of games held the Cowboys back and that a new coach was needed to help the team realize its full potential. Enter former Super Bowl winning coach Mike McCarthy. Although McCarthy did not leave his previous job in Green Bay on the best of terms, he seems to have recommitted himself in his year long hiatus from football, even venturing so far to voluntarily fly to Cincinnati to learn about analytics. All jokes aside, it will be interesting to see how much of an impact McCarthy will be able to have on his new team given the shortened offseason. He does have the benefit though of inheriting one of the top offenses in the league, which got even better this past offseason with the addition of rookie wide receiver Ceedee Lamb to pair alongside quarterback Dak Prescott, elite running back Zeke Elliot and wide receivers Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper. McCarthy also smartly decided to keep offensive Coordinator Kellen Moore on his staff. Dallas’ front seven should be improved from last year with the addition of veteran pass rushers Dontari Poe, Everson Griffen and Aldon Smith to pair alongside star Demarcus Lawrence and the return of their three starting linebackers Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch. This team is one of the most talented rosters on paper coming into the season and plays in one of the weakest divisions in football, leading to big expectations in Big D this season.

Super Bowl Prediction

 The nature of this offseason is going to make it difficult for teams to make big jumps. As such, my Super Bowl picks from each conference not surprisingly come from the teams listed at the top of the article. In the AFC, the Chiefs and Ravens are simply in a class of their own and I expect the conference to come down to those two teams. However, I give the slight edge to the Chiefs and their superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes and believe they will emerge victorious over Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. The NFC is a little more open than the AFC but ultimately, I have to go with the snake bitten Saints to finally get over the hump and get back to the Super Bowl. This season seems like Drew Brees’ swansong and the Saints have done a nice job surrounding him with talent both on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Officiating and bad luck have derailed the team’s last three playoff runs, but I believe Brees has one more run left in him before he moves on to his cushy broadcasting job at NBC. Once in the Super Bowl, the Saints will put up a good fight, but they will ultimately be no match for Mahomes and the Chiefs’ high-octane offense. Kansas City will become the first repeat champions since the 2003-2004 Patriots.